When Jon Austin, of the Basildon Echo, is asked how many awards he’s won, he says – without a hint of ego – “I’d have to sit down and think about it.”
The answer – we think – is eight: Essex journalist of the year in 2004; East of England daily reporter of the year in 2007, 2008, and 2009; Press Gazette regional daily reporter of the year in 2007 and 2008; Creative East Media Awards best exclusive in 2008; and, in the same year, Newsquest daily reporter of the year.
Not bad for a 34-year-old former travel agent.
Austin’s investigations are well-known: an expose of travellers campaigning to stay on green belt land; highlighting dangerous sofas being sold in high street stores; exposing travellers recruiting down-and-outs as “slaves”.
The latest, an investigation into filthy kennels used by Basildon Council to home strays, even caused his paper to adopt a dog. Called, of course, Echo.
Austin started at the Yellow Advertiser in Redbridge, before moving to Basildon.
“You have one edition that you have to work on yourself, you’re news editing, you’re writing crime, tea parties, everything,” he says of his time at the Advertiser.
But journalism was not his first choice.
‘It wasn’t something I was set on as a kid,’he says. ‘It was something I turned to after my degree.
‘I went off travelling and ended up being a travel agent, which I hated. I started work experience at papers, and did the NCTJ.”
Scent for news
After six months in Basildon came his first sniff – literally – of a scoop.
‘There were bad smells going across Basildon,’he says. ‘We thought we’d get to the bottom of it.
‘The Environment Agency wouldn’t own up, so we got readers to fill out coupons – within 24 hours they admitted it was a landfill site causing the stench.
‘They spent weeks finding out exactly what the smell was, and it was a lake that had gone toxic. They ended up spending £2m on cleaning up the tip.
‘It’s one of those things – you either get the bit between your teeth or not. You have to be a bit obsessive.
‘It’s a bit of a boring subject, landfill sites, but they wouldn’t admit to it for so long.
‘You’re just the man in the street and you’re getting to ask people in power these questions.”
His investigations take months to prepare, from tip-off to splash. The first notes on the slave labour splash, for example, were taken months before publication.
‘It always starts with a tip-off,’he says. ‘With the kennels it was something that was mentioned while you’re doing other stories, or you’re writing about dog rehoming.”
His favourite tale was slave labour. ‘When I first got tipped off I thought: ‘There’s no chance of getting anything’,’he says – but he’s quick to praise colleagues for giving him time, and space, to dig.
‘It’s not just the news editors, it’s reporters,’he says. ‘They are writing some of the day-to-day stuff. If the news desk are confident in me taking the time out, that’s great.”
Austin’s title now is political and investigations editor. But the investigations began in his own time, alongside death knocks, council meetings, and other reporter’s staples.
‘Some of the first stuff on travellers I had to fit in along my normal job,’he says.
‘I got some recognition for that, and they created another role for me to do my investigations.
‘I’m political reporter here, that’s part of my official title still, and I can do the investigations in my own time – stay late, maybe a few weekends.”
So, in an era of churnalism, shrinking newsrooms, and more work for less money, can local reporters still become investigators?
‘I would have thought so,’he says.
‘I’m not an expert on these things; it’s something you pick up. It’s not rocket science – it takes ages and it’s frustrating. If people spend long enough, things fall into place.”